Balancing act to avoid full-blown water crisis

Service delivery protests around the country are putting pressure on government to act in the interests of the people, particularly rural dwellers, who elected them to power. And while not all the protests have to do with water and sewage, studies show these issues rank high among the reasons some communities are marching on the streets.

Aging infrastructure, badly managed treatment plants, worrisome skills shortages and a mismanaged budget are hamstringing government’s efforts to handle the situation. The department of water and sanitation, tasked with supplying clean water and safe sanitation to all, is facing mounting criticism. Several of its senior officials came in for a roasting last month from members of Parliament’s watchdog standing committee on public accounts (Scopa) over their department’s poor performance. 

Straight-talking Scopa chairman and ANC MP Themba Godi remarked that a “sense of accountability and responsibility” appeared lacking among the department’s line managers. This followed his committee’s interrogation of yet another qualified audit opinion, passed by the auditor-general on the department’s latest annual (2013/14) financial statements, as well as on the finances of the Water Trading Entity, which the department manages.

The heightened pressure on the department to perform comes against the backdrop of South Africa’s inherent geographic and climatic challenges, including extreme fluctuations in rainfall. The country is ranked the 30th-driest in the world.

Increased population

Adding to this is the fact that there are a lot more people now than there were 21 years ago, when the new democracy started formulating its first water and sanitation policies. The most-recent estimate by Statistics SA (mid-2014) pegs the country’s population at 54 million. The Census 1996 estimate was 40 million. This means there are at least 15 million more people requiring water and sanitation than there were in 1994, the year in which the ANC assumed power. High levels of illegal immigration — for which there are varying estimates — could put this figure closer to 20 million.

These factors have combined to create a sense of unease among many observers, who, as is evident in several recent media reports, have started to wonder whether the country is heading for a major water crisis, a situation that would have serious implications for its economic growth rate, food security and, ultimately, political stability.

Each day, South Africa’s water planners carry out a complex balancing act to get water from where it falls as rain to where it is needed on farms, in factories, and for household use. Such high-tech juggling is essential because of the country’s relatively low rainfall. It receives about 450mm a year, well under the 860mm world average. However, a better understanding of the huge challenges with which the planners grapple comes not from looking at the average, but at the geographical extremes. Rainfall varies hugely across the country; from less than 100mm a year in the arid west, to more than 1 500mm in the much-wetter east. It is this variability, coupled with an ever-increasing demand for water, that has spurred the construction of one of Africa’s most intricate water supply systems.

Over the past 80 years, engineers have built a total of 794 large dams around the country. A “large” dam is one with one with a wall height of 15m or more; or, one with a wall height between five and 15m and a storage capacity of more than three million cubic metres. These 794 dams have a combined storage capacity of about 31 billion cubic metres. Among them is the recently built De Hoop Dam on the Steelpoort River in Limpopo, and the Mooi-uMgeni transfer scheme’s Spring Grove Dam in KwaZulu-Natal.

Getting all this stored water to where it is needed involves 29 inter-basin and inter-river transfer schemes, an intricate complex of pipelines, pumps, tunnels, sluices, canals and storage reservoirs, able to shift up to seven billion cubic metres of water a year from one part of the country to another. This volume is equivalent to about three times the full supply capacity of the Vaal Dam. Probably the best known of these schemes is the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP), which supplies water from the Katse and Mohale dams in the mountain kingdom of Lesotho to South Africa’s thirsty industrial heartland, Gauteng.

Careful planning

Phase 2 of the LHWP, launched last year, is set to deliver an additional 465 million cubic metres of water to the province each year from 2021.

It involves the construction of the 2.2 billion cubic metre Polihali Dam in Lesotho’s Mokhotlong district, as well as a 38km water-transfer tunnel connecting it to the Katse Dam. 

Water and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane said last month that the project was “on track” to start delivering water to the Vaal River system six years from now.

Other large projects her department has on its drawing boards include the Mzimvubu Dam in the Eastern Cape, the Nwamithwa Dam in Mpumalanga, and raising the walls of the Hazelmere Dam in KwaZulu-Natal and the Clanwilliam Dam in the Western Cape.

The precarious nature of South Africa’s water supply was aptly summed up by a senior department official earlier this year, who said the rain gods had smiled on the country over the past two decades.

“We’ve had fantastic rainy years so far; we haven’t had a serious drought for many years … but it will come, there’s no argument.”

For the residents of many areas in Zululand and adjacent parts of KwaZulu-Natal, it may have already arrived. A two-year dry spell in the province has led to heavy water restrictions and fines, aimed at curtailing consumption.

According to recent reports, dam levels in the region have dropped to critically low levels, with Hazelmere Dam, which supplies water to the eThekwini and iLembe districts, expected to run out of water in August. There are also reports of large job losses in the region’s farming sector, together with crop, wildlife and livestock losses.

In this, the strategic overview document is proving prophetic.

“Current water usage already exceeds reliable yield and will mean that during a drought year, it is likely that the country will experience water restrictions on a fairly large scale.”

Asked if he thought the country could avoid a full-blown water crisis if it took urgent and immediate action, Willem De Clercq from Stellenbosch University’s water institute responded: “Yes, I would say that, provided that we plan carefully ahead. Otherwise we may soon have big problems.”

More than two thousand years ago, Roman playwright Plautus warned on the perils of neglecting water infrastructure.

“It is wretched business,” he wrote, “to be digging a well just as thirst is mastering you.”

It is a warning that water-stressed South Africa should well heed.


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